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Bracketology 2019: The Big East is starting to dominate the bubble

With half of the conference’s membership hovering around the cut line, Madison Square Garden could very well be Bubble Central next week. Oh, Indiana is back too.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Georgetown
On Saturday, Georgetown downed Seton Hall in a double-OT thriller. That defeat knocked the Pirates out of the field for the moment, while pushing the Hoyas further into the at-large picture.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The four No. 1 seeds in March’s first full bracket are the same quartet found on the top line of Friday’s bubble update, in the same order. At the top, you’ll once again find the Virginia Cavaliers, who followed Saturday’s 73-49 blowout of the Pittsburgh Panthers with a record-breaking performance from the perimeter against the Syracuse Orange last night. Tony Bennett’s team, which is looking scarier and scarier as the days tick by, hit a staggering 18 of their 25 three-point attempts (good for 72 percent) to turn what was a 34-32 Orange lead at the half to a 79-53 Cavalier romp.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs, two wins away from a WCC tournament title, are second overall, with the Duke Blue Devils — still without Zion Williamson, mind you — third. The Kentucky Wildcats remain fourth, despite being blown out by the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday — a reversal of UK’s similar victory at Rupp Arena two weeks earlier. While the Volunteers are stuck on seed line No. 2 for now, they do have their favored regional spot, in the South in Louisville. The North Carolina Tar Heels head up the second seed line, in position to jump to the top if they can sweep Duke on Saturday night. Tennessee is next, followed by a pair of Big Ten teams, the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans, who happen to also meet on Saturday evening in East Lansing.

There’s been one change to the No. 3 line. While the LSU Tigers, who share the SEC lead with Tennessee, Kansas Jayhawks and Houston Cougars all return, the Purdue Boilermakers, currently atop the Big Ten, replace a Marquette Golden Eagles squad that no longer control its own destiny in the Big East race. That’s thanks to consecutive losses to the Villanova Wildcats (in Philadelphia) and, more disappointingly, the Creighton Bluejays at home. The Wildcats’ Wednesday win puts them in position to win at least a share of the Big East title for a fifth time in the short six-season history of the reconfigured 10-team conference.

Monday was a big night for seed line No. 4, with the Big 12 co-leading Texas Tech Red Raiders and Kansas State Wildcats both moving closer to the conference title after their respective wins over the bubbly Texas Longhorns and TCU Horned Frogs. And Tuesday will continue to shape the protected seed race, as the Virginia Tech Hokies, currently ranked 15th out of the top 16, visit the Florida State Seminoles, the top team on seed line No. 5.

Looking at the field as a whole, we start by looking at the left side of the traditional bracket (East and Midwest), followed by the right (West and South).

Note: Auto bid holders in this section are noted by the conference names in parentheses. Arrows indicate movement up or down the seed list relative to last Tuesday’s bracket. New entrants are marked with an asterisk.

(1) East (Washington, D.C.)

Columbus, Ohio (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Virginia Cavaliers (ACC) vs. (16) Norfolk State Spartans (MEAC)/St. Francis (Pa.) Red Flash (NEC)
(↑8) Auburn Tigers vs. (9) Oklahoma Sooners

San José, California (Fri./Sun.)

(↑5) Villanova Wildcats (Big East) vs. (12) Minnesota Golden Gophers
(↑4) Kansas State Wildcats (Big 12) vs. (↑13) Hofstra Pride (CAA)

Tulsa, Oklahoma (Fri./Sun.)

(↑6) Wofford Terriers (SoCon) vs. (11) Arizona State Sun Devils
(3) LSU Tigers (SEC) vs. (↑14) Montana Grizzlies (Big Sky)

Des Moines, Iowa (Thu./Sat.)

(7) Iowa State Cyclones vs. (↑10) Utah State Aggies (MW)
(2) Michigan Wolverines vs. (15) Wright State Raiders (Horizon)

(4) Midwest (Kansas City, Missouri)

Columbus (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (16) Sam Houston State Bearkats (Southland)
(↓8) Washington Huskies (Pac-12) vs. (↓9) Syracuse Orange

Hartford, Connecticut (Thu./Sat.)

(↓5) Florida State Seminoles vs. (12) Temple Owls/Alabama Crimson Tide
(↓4) Marquette Golden Eagles vs. (13) Vermont Catamounts (America East)

Tulsa (Fri./Sun.)

(↓6) Maryland Terrapins vs. (11) Lipscomb Bisons (ASUN)
(3) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (14) South Dakota State Jackrabbits (Summit)

Columbia, South Carolina (Fri./Sun.)

(↓7) Iowa Hawkeyes vs. (10) Florida Gators
(2) North Carolina Tar Heels vs. (*15) Colgate Raiders (Patriot)

(2) West (Anaheim, California)

Salt Lake City, Utah (Thu./Sat.)

(1) Gonzaga Bulldogs (WCC) vs. (16) Iona Gaels (MAAC)/Prairie View A&M Panthers (SWAC)
(↑8) Ole Miss Rebels vs. (↓9) Louisville Cardinals

Hartford (Thu./Sat.)

(↓5) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (↓12) TCU Horned Frogs
(↑4) Virginia Tech Hokies vs. (13) Old Dominion Monarchs (C-USA)

Salt Lake City (Thu./Sat.)

(↓6) Nevada Wolf Pack vs. (↓11) Texas Longhorns
(3) Houston Cougars (American) vs. (14) UC Irvine Anteaters (Big West)

Des Moines (Thu./Sat.)

(↑7) VCU Rams (A 10) vs. (↑10) NC State Wolfpack
(2) Michigan State Spartans vs. (*15) Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (MVC)

(3) South (Louisville, Kentucky)

Columbia (Fri./Sun.)

(1) Duke Blue Devils vs. (*16) Campbell Fighting Camels (Big South)
(8) Baylor Bears vs. (↑9) UCF Knights

San José (Fri./Sun.)

(↑5) Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. (↓*12) St. John’s Red Storm/Clemson Tigers
(4) Texas Tech Red Raiders vs. (13) New Mexico State Aggies (WAC)

Jacksonville, Florida (Thu./Sat.)

(6) Cincinnati Bearcats vs. (↑11) Belmont Bruins (OVC)
(↑3) Purdue Boilermakers (Big Ten) vs. (*14) Harvard Crimson (Ivy)

Jacksonville (Thu./Sat.)

(7) Buffalo Bulls (MAC) vs. (10) Ohio State Buckeyes
(2) Tennessee Volunteers vs. (*15) Georgia State Panthers (Sun Belt)

Notes on today’s projection:

  • The first round matchup that stands out is the Syracuse-Washington 8/9 game in the Midwest, which would pit Jim Boeheim’s Orange against former Syracuse assistant and coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins and his new charges from Seattle. Note that with two ACC squads and an SEC team on the top line and four total teams from those conferences on seed lines eight and nine, it didn’t take much creativity to line up this contest.
  • The East could feature a pair of second round matchups between surprising league champs, as LSU and Wofford, 14th in the NET, are in the region’s Tulsa pod, while Kansas State-Villanova is set for San José.
  • Iowa State ends up in Des Moines as a seven seed, thanks again to the Committee’s recent attempts to keep teams close to home — as long as protected seeds stay protected in the first round. (This single-round limitation is a major factor in bracketing that people forget.) However, Iowa, also a seven, has to travel to Jacksonville. That’s because Big Ten teams anchor both pods in the Iowa capital.
  • The Midwest is full of potential round of 32 intrigue: Kentucky vs. Washington or Syracuse, Florida State-Marquette, Kansas against Maryland or Lipscomb and North Carolina vs. Iowa or Florida.
  • Wisconsin vs. Virginia Tech in Hartford would likely be the most anticipated Second Round matchup in the West, but Nevada-Houston in Salt Lake City would be more than worth the price of admission. And a VCU-Michigan State contest could rival a Badger-Hokie one in the physicality department.
  • In the South, Purdue and Cincinnati could meet on Saturday in Jacksonville, with a spot in nearby Louisville at stake. Of course, the Bearcats would have to get by Belmont first in this scenario, and I guarantee you the Bruins will be the most-popular 11-over-6 upset pick in years. Mississippi State-Texas Tech and Tennessee-Buffalo are two other round of 32 matchups with potential for drama.
  • As for your top-two-seed Elite Eight weekend, Gonzaga-Michigan State (West) would be the appetizer for Duke-Tennessee (South) on Saturday, with those two winners meeting in the likely nightcap one week later in San Antonio. (Imagine if you will, a Maui rematch in Saturday primetime instead of on a late Wednesday afternoon.) On Sunday, Virginia-Michigan (East) would lead into the Kentucky-North Carolina all-blue-blood showdown in the Midwest.

Full seed list

Last Four Byes: Arizona State, Texas, TCU, Minnesota
Last Four IN: St. John’s, Clemson, Temple, Alabama
First Four OUT: Seton Hall, Indiana, Creighton, Georgetown
Next Four Out: Xavier, Furman, Oregon, Murray State

New Today: Campbell, Clemson, Colgate, Georgia State, Harvard, Loyola Chicago
Leaving Today: Bucknell, Missouri State, Radford, Seton Hall, Texas State, Yale

Bids by Conference: 9 ACC, 8 Big 12, 8 Big Ten, 8 SEC, 4 American, 3 Big East, 2 Mountain West, 2 Pac-12, 24 one-bid conferences

Back on Friday, the bubble picture had a distinctly mid-major flavor, particularly the portion below the cut line. But today, teams like Dayton, Liberty and Saint Mary’s, along with Memphis from the American Athletic have been squeezed out. Sure, Furman and Murray State remain, but both will almost assuredly need to claim their respective league’s automatic bids to dance.

Instead, the most likely at-large selections from this group come from the Big East, which has half of its membership either just inside the field (Hi, St. John’s) or outside of it. Seton Hall, 16-12, has finally dropped out, after three straight losses — capped by a 77-71 double OT defeat at Georgetown on Saturday night. That result helped secure the 18-11 Hoyas’ place in the picture — they’ve won three of their last four, with a home victory over Villanova being the most noteworthy. Had Patrick Ewing been a little more ambitious in the non-conference scheduling department, Georgetown would likely already be in. Creighton handed the Hoyas their lone loss in that four-game span, but the Bluejays, 15-13 in contests against Division I opponents, didn’t really get back on the radar until they won at Marquette relatively comfortably on Sunday.

Then there’s Xavier, idle this weekend. The 16-13 Musketeers have rattled off five straight wins, including ones over Creighton, Seton Hall, Villanova and St. John’s. But much like Georgetown, Travis Steele’s squad doesn’t have a marquee non-league win to hang its hat on. Oddly enough, both managed to beat Illinois in November, and that’s Xavier’s top non-conference result. At least Georgetown managed to beat Liberty to give them a slight edge in that category.

But neither Creighton nor Xavier is the most surprising bubble team hanging around with 13 days to go. No, that honor goes to the 15-14 Indiana Hoosiers, who not only defeated Wisconsin in one of the ugliest double-overtime games in history on Tuesday night, but also Michigan State on Saturday to complete a season sweep of the Spartans. Sure, Archie Miller’s club is a staggeringly-poor 3-12 in its last 15 games, but since the Committee no longer explicitly evaluates teams’ recent performances, the Hoosiers will remain in the picture, especially with five top 30 wins to their name.

Remember that a 15-loss team has been selected in each of the last two seasons, Alabama last year and Vanderbilt in 2017. And with 14-loss Texas in my current projected bracket and Indiana just outside of it, there’s a decent chance of such a squad sneaking in for the third season in a row. And remember that neither the 2018 Crimson Tide nor the 2017 Commodores even needed to play in Dayton.

On Friday, I’ll have another look at the bubble heading into the last weekend of the regular season for the majority of the country.